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Rights Groups Call for Decriminalization of Personal Use of Illegal Drugs in US

  • Wayne Lee

FILE - A Drug Enforcement Administration officer walks into a medical clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas, May 20, 2015.

FILE - A Drug Enforcement Administration officer walks into a medical clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas, May 20, 2015.

A new report by two prominent rights groups calls for the decriminalization of possession and personal use of all illicit drugs in the United States, concluding that enforcement of drug laws has unjustifiably ripped families apart, fueled racial discrimination and failed to cut widespread drug abuse.

The report, titled "Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States," by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union said more people are arrested for simple drug possession in the United States than for any other crime.

"Every 25 seconds, someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said the report's author, Tess Borden. "These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence."

FILE - A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent marks a house after he searches it for survivors.

FILE - A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent marks a house after he searches it for survivors.

While the U.S. struggles with myriad drug abuse issues, including a rapidly growing opioid epidemic, decriminalization of drug use is unlikely. But Borden hopes the report will prompt federal and state authorities to boost funding for drug treatment programs and to reclassify drug use and personal possession offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Racial disparity, harsh sentences

The report said state law enforcement departments make 1.25 million drug possession arrests each year, or one out of nine arrests nationwide. Although black adults use drugs at similar or lower rates than white adults, the report said blacks are more than twice as likely to be arrested for possession.

The nation's "war on drugs" campaign, which began in 1971 by President Richard Nixon, has failed, the report said. Drug abuse rates are still high and criminalization of drugs forces users into the shadows of society and makes them less likely to get treatment.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said they interviewed 149 people who were prosecuted for using drugs in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Sixty-four of them are in custody, including Corey Ladd, who is serving a 17-year sentence for possessing a half-ounce of marijuana after two previous drug arrests. Ladd is the father of a four-year-old girl who has never seen him outside of prison.

"The sheer harshness of the sentence shocks the conscience," Louisiana's appeals court wrote in April, when it asked that Ladd be given a lesser term. But prosecutors denied the request, and Ladd's case is now headed to the Supreme Court.

‘Evidence-based alternatives’

In a statement to VOA, White House National Drug Control Policy spokesman Mario Moreno said, "The administration has been committed to implementing a balanced approach to drug policy from the beginning because we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. Public health and public safety collaboration is imperative to achieving this goal, which is why we've prioritized reforming our sentencing policies so that scarce resources are applied in the most effective ways."

FILE - After commuting the sentences of 61 drug offenders, President Barack Obama meets with several formerly incarcerated people to learn about re-entry challenges, over lunch in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2016.

FILE - After commuting the sentences of 61 drug offenders, President Barack Obama meets with several formerly incarcerated people to learn about re-entry challenges, over lunch in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2016.

Moreno said the Obama administration has promoted "evidence-based alternatives" to imprisonment that ensure access to drug treatment and recovery programs.

Specialized courts that divert non-violent drug offenders to the programs have been expanded, Moreno said, as have reentry programs that help former offenders remain drug-free as they return to society.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Russ Baer told VOA the agency is committed to upholding the nation's drug laws and focuses its efforts on the "biggest and most violent drug traffickers that control the flow of illegal drugs."

The report said many Western European countries have adopted comparatively less punitive approaches to drug abuse. Portugal took the most significant step in 2001 when it decriminalized the acquisition, possession and use of illegal drugs in amounts up to a 10-day supply. As a result, many drug abusers there are more likely to enter treatment programs rather than face prosecution.

But Temple University criminal justice professor Steven Belenko maintains the U.S. approach to drug enforcement is dramatically different from Portugal's.

"We don't have a consensus" in the United States, he said. "We've got to see it more as a public health problem, not as a crime problem."

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